Amira Patel is the founder of a flourishing walking group for Muslim women. She talks to us about hiking veiled, speaking up against prejudice, and stepping outside the comfort zone.
A year ago, Amira Patel set up a group for Muslim women looking to connect with the outdoors. The Wanderlust Women has since attracted more than 2,000 Instagram followers, made the National Diversity Awards’ nominations shortlist and introduced dozens of women from diverse backgrounds to the thrill of outdoor adventuring.
Main image: Amira in the Peak District. Photo: Rachel Sarah
How did Wanderlust Women get started?
I officially started it a year ago. I did set up a casual women’s walking group a few years back, when I had found my connection with the outdoors and wanted to help other women to have that too, but back then not as may people were interested. This may have been due to not being introduced to the outdoors – I think many felt there wasn’t a community out there or groups they could join. People were apprehensive about joining and getting involved.
Then we went into lockdown and I noticed there were more people interested because there was nothing else to do! I wasn’t working and I had more time to go on adventures and explore. I used to share my hikes and adventures and that inspired other Muslim women to think: ‘if she’s doing it, what’s stopping us?!’ I put a post up explaining we shouldn’t let how we look and our identity stop us from doing things and I got a lot of people reaching out to me – that gave me a push to focus on a group for Muslim women so that they feel there’s a safe space for them.
So there was an audience out there of Muslim women who wanted to get outdoors but perhaps weren’t sure how to go it alone?
Definitely. There’s this stigma we face, with people thinking that Muslim women can’t do anything, can’t have fun – and there’s racism and Islamophobia. Obviously if you’ve seen in the news that things happen to veiled women then that can make you scared. So many people got in touch with me who wanted to do something like this but felt they couldn’t because they felt intimidated or couldn’t join other groups because they didn’t fit in. They wanted a safe space where they could be with other women and have that sense of belonging.
We’re not just a group of women who go out together – we talk to one another, do a bit of mindfulness, and as Muslims we connect to god wherever we are so there’s that faith side to it too. It’s a real community we’ve created.
And the group has been incredibly popular…
My events get sold out within a few seconds. Literally – I put something up and it’s sold out! A lot of people have just been introduced to the outdoors and found somewhere that they can do these things, and they absolutely love it. Once you start, you don’t want to stop! I feel like since I’ve started my group I’ve seen so many other groups that have been formed, so many more Instagram accounts being created by Muslim hikers. I feel like awareness is growing and people are talking about this more – our voices are being heard.
Are women who join the group using it as a platform to get out and explore independently or with friends?
Yes, I’ll get messages asking if we can recommend a route to do or somebody saying they came out last weekend and it gave them the confidence to do something themselves. I do a lot of solo adventures and many people ask how I do it. I say: just get out of your comfort zone and then you’ll be able to do different things.
Do you think social media has played an important role in encouraging people from diverse background to get outdoors?
It does play a huge part. Sometimes I think you have to see something to think: ‘alright, I’ve got to do this’. I’m a photographer and videographer and sometimes people who would never have thought about going for a walk are inspired to get out by the way I’ve visualised a video. Social media used in the right way can really engage people.
What kind of adventures have The Wanderlust Women been on so far?
We launched just after lockdown and we had so many things planned – but then lockdown happened again! We’ve done a few walks in the Peak District, a few walks around Bolton where I’m from, and in the Lake District and Scotland. We’ve been gorge walking and rock climbing. And we have lots coming up – kayaking, canoeing, cycling. This weekend we’ve got a Ramadan Iftar hike where we’re going to go for a walk, watch the sunset, open our fast and have that time together. And we’re planning an Eid hike as well. I like to bring that faith part into it as well as a nice way to engage and interact with everyone.
Have you always loved the outdoors?
From a young age we’ve always travelled, gone to different places and seen beautiful scenery. My mum always loved being outdoors and getting dirty! I was a bit of a tomboy growing up as well, but during my teenage years she used to get me to come out with her and I used to moan and groan all the time. That changed when we went up our local hill, Rivington Pike. I found it really hard (which is funny, because I can run up and down there now) but I really enjoyed it. After that there was a sunrise walk, and then a snowy one. Back then that was challenging for me, getting up early and walking in the snow, but it made me realised that I loved it. Then I started doing solo adventures.
Did you always walk alone when you weren’t with your mum?
None of my friends were really interested. When I joined groups I was the only Muslim woman there and it made me realise that I don’t really see many people like me in the outdoors. I wanted to do so much but I didn’t have anyone to do it with and I felt all on my own. That was when I started thinking about setting up a group, so that if there were people out there like me then they’d have someone to do it with.
Which of your walks have been the most memorable?
One of my favourites – although also one of the hardest – has been Scafell Pike, because the route we took was really beautiful but not well known. I’d been trekking abroad a lot, but it was the first mountain I’d done in the UK. It was really good, not just because it was so beautiful but because it taught me quite a few lessons.
Do you think you’re perceived differently by people you meet in the outdoors because you’re wearing a veil?
Someone doesn’t really have to say anything and you can still feel uncomfortable because of the way you’re looked at. Say somebody was walking past me, I’d always move first – because there’s so much negativity in the media, I feel I’ll automatically be looked at in a negative way. I’ll always say ‘hi’ first and try to make myself look as ‘normal’ as possible. Sometimes people will say something like ‘are you not hot in that?’ or ‘this must be your first time’ – undermining you because you’re wearing something that looks different and you don’t look like a typical outdoorsy hiker.
And sometimes of course you encounter serious racism. People don’t understand the anxieties you have behind the veil – will I be safe here? Will people be racist towards me? I feel that, if I don’t speak up about this, then who else is going to do it?
What can other hikers do to make you feel more comfortable?
If someone really doesn’t know about a certain faith then there are so many resources out there for people looking to learn – so, firstly, it’s about educating yourself. Secondly, if someone has a genuine question then I’m always happy to talk about my work and my religion. Finally, it’s not just ‘how can I come to you and not be rude’ it’s about what you can do in your own community – if you know of other people who need educating then talk to them, don’t be silent.
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INTERVIEW: Hanna Lindon